March 19th, 2012

Subversive Spiritualities: How Rituals Enact the World, by Frederique Apffel-Marglin (Oxford University Press, 2011)—A Review Essay

By Pramod Parajuli


In this deep review of, Pramod Prajuli takes us to the bio-cultural landscapes in the heart of the high Andes and Amazon of Peru where he so elegantly explains, based on the book, how the true understanding, and regeneration, of this landscape requires acceptance of a profoundly different, non-technical, non-reductionist, and non-“Western” mindset. The esay illustrates residue of enchanted bio-cultural patrimony, as it still survives and thrives in the Peruvian highlands as well as in the High Amazon.  The core message of the book is to show that this patrimony is not a one-way street where the humans enact on nature but rather a two-way street where nature also enacts upon members of human species. 

A chacra (cultivated field) comes into being through the actions of the sun, the moon, the soil, the constellations, the winds, the waters, the seeds, the plants, the insects, the birds, the tools, other animals, the actions of humans and so forth.

(Frederique Apffel-Marglin, Subversive Spiritualities, 2011)

The light of mind must flow into and marry with the light of nature to bring forth a world.

(Arthur Zajonc, Catching the Light, 1993)

I am pleased to present a review essay around another book by a prolific author Frederique Apffel-Marglin on Andean and Amazonian rituals and spirituality.  One of the core themes of the book is bio-cultural patrimony and bio-cultural regeneration as it is still alive and thrives in some parts of the highlands as well as the High Amazon of Peru.  This is the second major work by the author on the Andean cosmovision.  Many of these themes were introduced in an edited volume some fifteen years ago, entitled, The Spirit of Regeneration (Zed, 1998).  The Andes and the High Amazon has been an area of interest for the author since the early 1990s when she started collaborating work with PRATEC (Andean Project for Peasant Technologies, visit: 1993. Since 2009, the author has also founded a non-profit organization called Sachamama ( which is engaged in regenerating the spiritual life of the local indigenous group in this High Amazonian locality. The Center is deeply embedded in the agricentric, pachacentric, and forest-centric lifeways of the people there.  Almost half of each year, the author lives in the Lamas region in the Peruvian High Amazon, overseeing Sachamama organization. The author also directs a summer study abroad accredited program for undergraduates from US Colleges and Universities through an arrangement with the study abroad organization Living Routes and accreditation from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. ( . Just as her scholarship has spread between the interrogation of European thought and explaining the ritualistic and performative world of India and indigenous Peru, the author now actually lives in those two worlds.

I have personally known the author for some two decades now.  I also visited the Peruvian Highlands for a few weeks in 1996 under the author’s and PRATEC’s invitation. It is my pleasure to share some of my reflections on the content and the spirit of the book in hand.

The book is a tour de force of the Peruvian indigenous universe, but not at the simple level of an anthropology or ethnography of these indigenous peoples. While the author calls this a “reverse anthropology,” for me it is a duet between the Peruvian indigenous world and the institutions of science, modernity, development, and the neoliberal frameworks of free markets.  The heart of this book is about illuminating Andean/Amazonian indigenous life and bio-cultural patrimony, while the narrative engages in the parallel discourse about those who the author calls “modern cosmopolitans.” Heirs to the scientific revolution and enlightenment, modern cosmopolitans are lonely, miserable urban dwellers who are deprived of the accompaniment of the other-than- human beings in our earthly journey. Using the lens from a living and enchanted world of indigenous Peru where every aspect of the world is alive and communicates to each other, the author likens the modern cosmopolitans as “abandoned children”, who have become miserably detached from the other-than-human world or beings, such as spirits, deities, demons and so forth. Woven into this story, a reader gets a good tour of the birth and evolution of scientific discourses and methods.

Among the founders of the scientific enterprise, the author picks on the Robert Boyle’s experiments with the air-pump, as symptomatic of reductionist scientific thinking. The author points out that Cartesian-Boylian-Newtonian frameworks heralded the separation between the physical and the metaphysical, mind and matter, culture and nature:

Francis Bacon, an alchemist and natural philosopher, had already advocated the use of instruments to question nature. But by taking these instruments for questioning nature out of the study of the alchemist into the public laboratory, Boyle effectively removed the experimenter from the equation. No longer was the manipulation of matter also a refinement of the philosopher’s soul. The divide between the human observer and questioner of nature and the non-human world was thereby operationalized. Broadly, then, Boyle applied three technologies: first, the material one, namely the use of machine, the air pump, to produce facts; second, a social one, namely the kinds of people the modest witnesses could or could not be; and third, a literary one, that made known the findings to non-witnesses, or the style of writing which today we call the objective style. The goal of all three technologies was to establish a method that would be a perfect “mirror of nature” bypassing men’s unreliable and trouble-making opinions and senses. Through this method certain knowledge could be established in a manner that totally separated it from the religious and political spheres where conflict raged. …The fields of knowledge were thus fragmented in the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, a new method that gave birth to the sundering of life and knowledge (P.84).

Several Peruvian institutions or organizations described in this book (fair trade cooperative, school of agronomy, state-sponsored feminism, irrigation, harvest) are about interrogation of the separation between matter and spirit, physical and metaphysical, and the sundering of life and knowledge in the European thought tradition. It is also about the assessment of whether and how this mindset has affected the designs and operatives in Peru in the realm of free trade, developmentalist feminism, agriculture, forestry, and water. The book successfully brings the stories from the in-between spaces in the Peruvian indigenous worlds where this magic spell has worked and where it has not.  Echoing Bruno Latour’s assertion that “We have Never been Modern,” this book shows how modernity is incompatible with the indigenous worldviews where the so–called physical matter and spiritual matters are not exclusive of each other. We get glimpses of the author’s observations and conversation with indigenous farmers as well as with Peruvian intellectuals.

The book takes us to the heart of the cosmovisions of Peruvian indigenous peoples where the rocks and trees have agency and are in communication with the other earthly beings including humans. In this universe, humans are mere members of what they call a space called pacha. Inhabitants of the pacha-–including the rocks, the waters, the sun, the moon, and the stars, as well as the plants, the animals and the people—are alive and communicate or converse with the human inhabitants through a multiplicity of signs (P.71). Pacha is not the whole world but one particular location. All—human beings, non-human entities as well as other-than-human beings (nature, deities and spirits, known as huacas, wamani or apus, and humans) are members of the same family, a single community. As members, all are alive and are in communication. Nurturing and being nurtured from each other is the thread that binds them together.  This mutual nurturing and nurturance (crianza in Spanish) has made and continues the deep-rooted bio-cultural patrimony in indigenous Peru.

The subtitle of the book, “How Rituals Enact the World” comes to effect in the intersection of nature, deities, and the humans. Rituals enact that world of mutual nurturing. The author provides ethnographic details of this mutual act of nurturing through the festival of the annual cleaning of the irrigation canals (chap 5), to the harvest ritual at the top of the mountain (chap 7).  In chapter 6, the Euro-centric teaching of agronomy in Peru is interrogated through the voice of Marcela Machaca, her sister, Magdalena, and their brother Gilberto. The two sisters went through the agronomic studies in a Peruvian university but did not find their own voice, or the experience of growing up in one of the most biologically diverse fields of the pacha or the chacra (cultivated fields).  None of the agronomic texts ever mentioned, or recognized that people in indigenous Peru had their own form of agriculture.  What was in Marcela and Magdalena’s ground and cosmos was relegated to the realm of culture, a backward-looking superstitious world of spirits and shamans.  These views were not admissible in the realm of science of agronomy and agriculture.  When the reviewer met Marcela and Magdalena in the spring of 1996, they had already abandoned the so-called scientific agronomy and had begun to regenerate Andean ways of life and community.  Through the courses with PRATEC (the subject of the book, The Spirit of Regeneration) both sisters were already reconnecting with and regenerating the agricentric community that they were born into.

In the same thread of interrogating the discourse and institutions of modernity, in chapter 8, Bolivian educator, Loyda Sanchez and the author expose the Bolivian state and its developmentalist and state-led feminist missionizing.  One of the paradoxes of such feminism model is that it seeks to create individual female citizens. In the Andean context, such a discursive move is at once creative and destructive.  Like what is happening in the realms of monoculture agriculture, or forestry, or growing of coffee for fair trade, the female individual citizen emerges from the destruction of the umbilical cord to her community and her relational world within it. Behind state’s goal of transforming comuneras into individual citizens, the authors depict the State agenda of controlling population growth (P. 132). Just as the other-than-human world is depicted simply as “resources” to be managed, exploited, and used by the human economy, a female body is brought under the purview of state statistics. Women are considered a population of concern whose fertility and reproduction rate need to be regulated and managed.

A new lens to look at women’s body and being and gender relations in the Andes within the wider context of comuneras’ membership among the pacha and chacra is called for. European acceptance of the biological female body is questioned as a violation of the Andean female, who is immersed in the body of the pachamama as well as her community of nurturance.  For example, in the Andean cosmos, waters within the body of the couple having children and the waters of the pachamama (mother earth) are the same, they are porous, open, fluid, and in a continuum.  Having children is considered a gift from the pachamama and a gift that is given back to pachamama’s circular flow of water. Tragedy is unfolding because this view is now subjugated under the new gaze where women are considered as hosting a unitary biological body.  Such a view of the modern biological, universal body is a product of the 17th century Cartesian separation between res extensa and res cogitans. A biological body was created as a new kind of object, a discrete, isolated, objectified, and material body, separated from the realms of nature, the semiotic, and the sacred (P. 132).

Continuing this theme further and deeper, chapter 10 describes the institution of fair trade as it functions in the Oro Verde (Green Gold) Fair Trade Coffee Cooperative in the community of Lamas in the Peruvian High Amazon. Although the author recognizes that Fair Trade is currently the only defense against Free Trade and helps the poorest farmers, its logic and logistics of operation does not value the symbolic and the spiritual aspects of the people there.  In agriculture and agronomy, wilderness preserves (chaps 2 and 10), fair trade Northern centralized management (chap 10) or a certain type of feminism (chaps 7, 8), the author finds the same imprint of the separation of matter from spirit, culture from nature, and human species from other-than and non-human species.  This book acknowledges that loss of bio-cultural patrimony while searching to recover that loss through bio-cultural regeneration.  The accounts and evidence from indigenous Peru as depicted in this book are mixed at best because the Catholic Christianity has already compromised most of the outer layers of these practices. But the soul of biocultural patrimony still survives and, in many ways, is thriving through the work of a new generation of educators and community healers such as Marcela Macheca, Loyda Sanchez, Julio Valladolid Rivera, and others.  Among many, I will highlight some glimpse of the biocultural patrimony and bio-cultural regeneration as depicted around water, forest, and agriculture.

Chapter 5 details an annual event called Yarqa Aspiy (canal cleaning day) in the community of Quispillacta on September 7th. After long winter months, September 7th heralds the season of corn planting in the Quechua speaking zone. What is happening and how it is done is an evidence of the bio-cultural patrimony in the Peruvian Highlands.  While canal cleaning is about the flow of water, it is also about nurturing the feelings of the comuneros and comuneras (some 5,000 people) so that the community remains together. Water is one of the mediums through which biocultural community is regenerated, annually.  But the deities also have to be involved; forests and plants also have to be involved. Thus all people involved wear their best new clothes that day. They decorate their hats with the wild matawayta flowers, which are brought from the high mountains or Puna, located some 4,800 meters high.  It takes a specially designated person two days on horse simply to reach the sacred flowers.  These flowers are the spirits of the water and they sacralize the whole ritual (P.79).  What does a flower from a far-away, and a high mountain place have to do with the flow of water downstream? The book tries to answer that very question.

Yet, despite the continuity of the ritual something is already lost in the deep sense of the Andean participants such as Marcela, and her brother Gilberto.  As the canal was cemented some years ago, there has been loss in the bio-cultural patrimony that emanates in the life of water and its flow. Due to the cemented lining of the canal, water is deprived of the accompaniment with the plants:

Respecting and nurturing water means that its ways of traveling are intimately known.  At the place where the water is diverted to the irrigation channels, the stream is surrounded by lush vegetation, in fact the whole stream is thus surrounded.  These plants are the water’s companions, its familiars. The water and the plants have an affinity with each other, and the ancient earthen channels are made lovingly, respectfully, so that the water would not feel abandoned by its companion plants and will travel happily.  …The water has its own needs and requirements, and has an integrity, which must be respected (P.89).

The book illustrates residue of enchanted bio-cultural patrimony, as it still survives and thrives in the Peruvian highlands as well as in the High Amazon.  The core message of the book is to show that this patrimony is not a one-way street where the humans enact on nature but rather a two-way street where nature also enacts upon members of human species. That is why humans have to perform rituals to ask permission to sow, harvest, store, or prepare the soil. Indigenous Peruvians, the book documents in convincing detail, transcend absolute time and space or nature and culture (chap 9).  Nature, deities or humans cannot be represented but all nurture the pacha through ritual performativity. This world could be considered, “pachacentrico,” says one of the founders of PRATEC, Julio Valladolid Rivera.

In chapter 7, we get a deeper view of the gender relations, which are intertwined with the pachamama, the soil, fertility, waters, and such. A conversation the author had with a young women, Eli Chambi illuminates this.  This is also the seed of the discomfort, Andean women have with the reproductive science and institutions as discussed in chapter 8 above:

The Chacra (cultivated field) is sort of a sacred place and women who enter the chacras must be fertile, otherwise you can harm its generative power. It is as I told you about this ritual of Ispallas. The T’alla is pachamama and like her she is pregnant from around January to March. And all other women are Ispallas, the root crops.  The men are mucho’s, grains. That is because grains grow outside the earth. You will see in the ritual, women call each other, Ispalla. The women are the ones who select the seeds, they are the ones who can touch the phina, the storage place, where the harvest is kept.  They are the ones who plant the seeds. They say that women’s hands are not like the men’s hands and they can do all that. Men are not supposed to touch the phina. But if the women are altered, the chacra suffers (P.118).

Further interpretation is offered in these words:

In the Andean world, under certain ritual context, a person can be a plant, a seed, an animal, a mountain, and any number of other things; the notion of the person is radically non-essentialist.  Within the person, nest in potentia numberless other forms of life, for it is understood that everything in the pacha is alive, not just humans, animals, and plants. These other forms of life—whether seeds, constellations, or animals –can manifest themselves under the proper ritual circumstances. One such circumstance is the festival of Ispalla. … During this ritual women become seeds of root crops. Such fluidity extends to gender, and under certain circumstances, a woman can be a man and vice versa (P. 145).

The nuances of the inter-weaving terms and meanings are beyond the scope of this review essay. However, what seems apparent to me is that the particular bio-geography of the Andes and of the High Amazon has nurtured a unique tradition of a bio-cultural patrimony.  Known as the “vertical archipelagoes,” this sloping terrain is home to at least 3,700 types of potatoes, interspersed between the wild and domesticated. Lying close to the equator, the country of Peru extends from sea to Amazon jungles and to the Andean mountains, where millions of people eke their living through agricultural subsistence above 10,000 or even 14,000 feet above the sea level.  The Inca civilization was built by negotiating the mountain slopes of more than sixty-five degrees from the horizontal. In many places, the distance between the Pacific shore and the tallest mountain is less than fifty or seventy miles. Within this rapid rise, a traveler can pass through 20 of the world’s 34 types of environments, and four-fifth of world’s climates (Mann, 2005:67). The Agro-ecological and cultural landscape for the rituals described in this book are found on these slopes where the range of potatoes in a single Andean field, exceeds the diversity of nine-tenth of the potatoes planted in the entire United States.  This is the heart of bio-cultural diversity, bio-cultural patrimony, and bio-cultural regeneration.

The Art of Bio-cultural Regeneration

What then entails bio-cultural regeneration? While critiquing the reductionism approach to Fair Trade (chap 10), the author proposes a bio-cultural regeneration that includes the spirit world.

Fair trade deprives itself of what surely would amount to drawing on another powerful tool to achieve the regeneration of the forest. Shamanism enables one to experience directly—and thus to understand—how the humans, the non-humans, and the other-than-humans are entangled.  The regeneration of the biocultural heritage of this region means the simultaneous regeneration of the shamanism and of the forest with its other-than-human plant spirits.  Ignoring the nexus between shamanism, the forest, and plant spirits is all the more regrettable since it could be easily achieved given that it does not at all compete with the pursuit of subsistence or cash crop agriculture. The two pursuits have not always coincided but are conjoined in the person of the shaman him/herself who is always an agriculturist (P. 194-95).

Such a view needs to be appreciated within an indigenous context where there is no fence between the wild and the domestic, or the forest and the farm. Indigenous peasants collect as many wild tubers from from the forest as they do grains and potatoes from the chacra.  At the same time, the shaman cultivates their own shamanic garden in the middle of the forest from where certain plants are harvested for medicinal and healing purposes. Yet when species interact, it is not necessarily to evolve into a next stage of evolution but to make livable common worlds, both within and between worlds (P. 159).

Indigenous Peruvians live in a world without  perspective, or a need for representations such as alphabet, writing, or a map. As illustrated by Robert Boyle’s air-pump experiment above, perspective allowed humans to represent the world in terms of measurements, diagrams and of course, paintings. But on the pacha, an oral and aural world, all speak, and do not need representation.


Performing the Lessons Learned, the author talks about how she has started a new experiment through the non-profit organization Sachamama ( Through this organization, she intends to engage herself and a team in the task of bio-cultural regeneration. Founded firmly on the long and deep tradition of bio-cultural patrimony of the Andean-Amazonian heritage, any activity such as re-creating the terra preta de indio (black soil of the Indians), or the bio-char is done with scientific accuracy as well as giving proper ritual and gifts to the deities, forests, and waters.  Through ritualized actions, efforts are made to express gratitude to pachamama (mother earth), and sachamama (mother forest).  The goal is to strike an intimate balance between meeting the needs of deities and of the non-human worlds and meeting the livelihood needs of one of the poorest people in economic terms.

I urge readers of this essay to pay attention to and witness whether and how will this experiment survive and thrive.  If this effort bears fruit, this will be one of the rare illustrations of bio-cultural patrimony and bio-cultural regeneration.

Select References

Apffel-Marglin, Frederique (with PRATEC) eds. (1998). The Spirit of Regeneration: The Andean Culture Confronts Western Notions of Development. London: Zed.

Duden, Barbara. (1991). The Women Beneath the Skin. Boston: Harvard University Press. (translated by Thomas Dunlap).

Hogan, Linda. (1995). Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World.  New York: W.W. Norton.

Marglin, Steve, A. (2008). The Dismal Science: How Thinking like an Economists Undermines Community. Harvard University Press.

Mann, Charles. (2005). 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus. New York: Alfred A. Knopp.

Mann, Charles. (2011). 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created.  New York: Alfred A. Knopp.

Shapin, Steven and Schaffer, Simon. (1985).  Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and Exeperimental Life. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.

Zajonc, Arthur. (1993). Catching the Light: The Intertwined History of Light and Mind. New York: Bantam Books.

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